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Free access to legal information imperative

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Free access to legal information imperative."  My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Free access to legal information imperative

 

One of the greatest benefits of wide-scale Internet access has been better access to legal information, both for attorneys and legal consumers. Expensive, space-hogging law libraries have been replaced by more affordable online portals that provide instantaneous access to all types of legal information.

In the early days of the Internet, most of this information was hidden behind costly paywalls, such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Even so, online subscription databases provided more convenient, affordable access to legal information than ever before. Eventually, less expensive options for legal research came along, offered by companies such as Fastcase, thus increasing competition, resulting in new offerings from all companies and price reductions across the board.

Over time, much of the information found behind paywalls became available for free — although not always in formats that were as robust or easily searchable — in large part due to the efforts the good folks at Cornell’s Legal Information Institute and Justia.

Another Web-based service that greatly increased access to legal information is the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) platform. PACER provides online access to United States federal court documents and was launched in 1988. At first it was only available via computer terminals located in libraries or office buildings but in 2001 that changed when PACER was made accessible via the Web. Although access isn’t free, it is affordable, at 10 cents per page.

Despite the benefits of online access, the system has been widely criticized as being clunky and not particularly intuitive. Fortunately, there are products available to improve the interface and make it more accessible, such as PacerPro (online: pacerpro.com). PacerPro is a free service offering a user-friendly overlay that improves the PACER interface by increasing its functionality and streamlining and improving the overall experience of searching for and downloading documents using PACER.

Of course, with or without an improved interface, PACER’s value is inherently tied to the quality of the information available to the public through its system. That’s why in August, even more criticism was levied toward PACER when it was announced that as part of a planned overhaul of the system’s architecture, entire categories of documents from five courts had been removed from the system. This announcement resulted in an outcry of dissent from those in favor of open and unimpeded public access to information intended by statute to be freely accessible to everyone.

Of course, most of the documents removed from the system are “historical” documents from older matters. Even so, the removal of the databases means additional hurdles for those seeking to obtain those documents, most of which can now only be obtained directly from the courts that produced the records.

For those concerned about unimpeded access to federal court records, there’s always the RECAP platform, a crowd-sourced service that hosts free archives of records already downloaded by other PACER users. RECAP (online: recapthelaw.org), which is available via a browser extension, currently houses 3 million documents and, according to Brian Carver, an assistant professor at University of California at Berkeley School of Information who co-founded RECAP, they are trying to determine if the courts will provide them with the documents removed from PACER so that they can make them available on RECAP.

For now, however, the data that was unceremoniously removed without warning is no longer accessible via PACER and a blow has been struck to the public’s right to have unfettered access to legal information. The Internet is a powerful tool and one that has helped to increase access to legal information. But if that information is hidden away in the dusty recesses of our nation’s federal courthouses and not made available in digital format, then their availability to the public is illusory, at best. In the 21st century there is no excuse for the failure to make our public judicial documents readily accessible. Let’s hope this short sighted decision is rectified — sooner rather than later.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can bereachedatniki@mycase.com.


Lawyers and Mobile Devices Trending Higher

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Lawyers and Mobile Devices Trending Higher."  My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Lawyers and Mobile Devices Trending Higher

Of all the technology trends, lawyers have adapted to mobile devices the most readily. Smartphone use has been on the rise for years now, tablets are increasingly being incorporated by lawyers and judges into their workflows, and wearable technology, such as smartwatches, will no doubt make inroads in the legal profession as well.


The results of two recent surveys confirm that lawyers continue to adopt mobile technologies into their practices, but the numbers stabilized somewhat in 2014. In other words, the meteoric rise of the use of smartphones and tablets has leveled off somewhat in the legal profession, just as it has outside of it as well.


First, according the the American Bar Association’s 2014 Legal Technology Survey, the percentage of lawyers who reported using a smartphone in their practices remained the same as last year at 91 percent. According to the survey results, lawyers in large firms were the most likely to use a smartphone and solos were the least likely: 96 percent of lawyers in firms with 100 or more lawyers reported using a smartphone, as did 95 percent of lawyers in firms with 10-20 lawyers, 89 percent in forms with 2-9 lawyers and 86 percent of solo attorneys.


Another interesting finding is that 66 percent of the lawyers who use smartphones prefer the iPhone. Of the remainder, 24 percent use an Android device, and the rest use either a BlackBerry, Windows phone or other device. Of those devices, 74 percent were owned by the attorneys and only 28 percent were purchased by their firm.


Lawyers report using their smartphones for a variety of uses, with more than half using their devices to access the Internet, email, telephone, calendars, contacts and to send texts; 7 percent track expenses on their smartphones; and 4 percent even use their smartphones to create documents.
Tablet use by lawyers increased ever so slightly, up one percent to 49 percent in 2014. The number of iPads used by lawyers declined slightly in 2014, down from 91 percent in 2013 to 84 percent in 2014. The rest of the responding attorneys use Android tablets (10 percent), Windows tablets (6 percent), or another device (3 percent). More than 50 percent of lawyers report using their tablets to access the Internet, their calendars and contacts, 17 percent report using their tablets to create documents, and 10 percent use them to track expenses.


Many of these numbers comport with the findings of the 2014 ILTA and Inside Legal Annual Technology Purchasing Survey, which is sent out to 1,400 ILTA member law firms, with 20 percent of the firms responding. 35 percent of responding firms indicated that they do not buy smartphones for their lawyers. Of those that do, iPhones are purchased by 63 percent, 39 percent buy Android, 28 percent buy BlackBerry, and 9 percent purchase Windows devices. Interestingly, according to the survey results from two years ago, 50 percent of firms refused to purchase iPhones and now nearly all do — a statistic that is most definitely a sign of the times!


When it comes to tablets, 48 percent of responding firms indicated that they purchased them for their attorneys. Of those firms that purchased tablets, iPads lead the way at 44 percent. Microsoft Surface followed at 17 percent, Android was next at 10 percent, Windows 8 tablet at 6 percent, Kindle Fire at 2 percent, and BlackBerry Playbook at 1 percent. The remaining 52 percent of firms had either no support for tablet purchases or a BYOD policy in place.


Finally, when respondents were asked about the most exciting technologies or trends, the Internet of things, which includes artificial intelligence and wearables, came in as one of the top responses.
So keep your eye out for the wearables this year, which are the next iteration of mobile technology. Given how lawyers quickly have embraced smartphones and other mobile tools, I have no doubt that wearables will be next!


So, when many of you read my report next year on the 2015 legal technology surveys, I bet quite a few of you will be wearing smartwatches and law firms will have already begun the process of supporting these devices. So stay tuned for the next exciting phase of mobile technology!

 

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can bereachedatniki@mycase.com.


Virtual law firms allow practice on your own terms

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Virtual law firms allow practice on your own terms."  My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Virtual law firms allow practice on your own terms 

For years now I’ve been an advocate of Web-based computing and have asserted that it will change the practice of law as we know it. I felt so strongly about this that I wrote a book about cloud computing for lawyers that was published in 2012, and shortly thereafter, I was hired by a legal software company that develops Web-based practice management software.

So, of course you could argue that I’m biased. After all, I’ve got skin in the game.

But know that I speak from personal experience. Without the Internet, I’m not sure where I’d be today. Web-based computing has been integral to my career success ever since I returned to the practice of law in 2005 after a brief hiatus from my profession. During that short hiatus, I had my second child and re-grouped in the hopes of finding a career path best suited to my needs and interests.

It was in 2005 that I hung my virtual shingle, created a website, and began doing contract work for other lawyers. I also started my first blog, Sui Generis. The career trajectory that followed — contract attorney, of counsel for a local firm, legal columnist and then journalist, book author, national speaker, and New York-based director for MyCase, a legal technology company located in California — would never have been possible but for the Internet and Web-based computing.

Of course I worked hard, but even with hard work, my career path would have been impossible just a decade before. I was fortunate that my reentry into the legal profession coincided with the wide-scale proliferation of Internet-based technologies like cloud computing and social media. Otherwise, I’d probably still be handling occasional matters for local attorneys and struggling to find my way.

Rest assured, I’m not the only lawyer benefiting from the flexibility, convenience and tremendous possibilities offered by Web-based computing. As part of my job as a legal journalist, I often write about lawyers who use Web-based tools in their law practice. In fact, in just the past month, I’ve interviewed three different lawyers who have successful virtual law practices, which are online law firms that do not have brick and mortar offices. In every case, the choice to hang a virtual shingle rather than open up a physical law office was made because the lawyers sought to practice law on their own terms.

In one case, an attorney chose to open up a virtual practice because he and his wife enjoyed traveling. So they decided to pack up their family and move to Mexico for a while. They now plan to stay there indefinitely, since he was able to establish a busy law practice where he handles transactional matters such as estate planning and small business formation for clients located in the states in which he is licensed.

Another lawyer I spoke to has operated a thriving, full-time virtual law practice for over 6 years. Originally from Texas, she relocated to North Carolina due to her husband’s job and continues to handle estate planning matters for clients located in Texas, the state in which she is licensed. She originally hung a virtual shingle while living in Texas so that she could practice part-time and still have time to care for her children, but as they grew and after the family’s relocation, she gradually transitioned to a full-time practice.

In another case, an attorney told me that his family also relocated because of his wife’s career. Before they had kids they’d decided that one of them would stay at home and since she’s a surgeon, he made the choice to be the stay-at-home-father. But rather than leave the practice of law, he established a part-time virtual law practice handling estate planning matters for his clients.

Like the other attorneys I spoke to, he used a Web-based platform to store and access all of his firm’s files and for client communication purposes. That set up is what makes his virtual practice possible and he’s able to care for his children during the day and perform client work on weeknights and weekends. Eventually he envisions transitioning to a brick and mortar office while still handling some client matters virtually.

So the idea that Web-based computing will change the practice of law is no longer just a pipe dream — it’s reality. Lawyers are using technology to create law practices that allow them to practice law on their terms.So while cloud computing may not be changing every law firm, it’s changing the way that some lawyers practice law. It’s giving them more options, increased flexibility, and greater control — over their practices and their lives.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can bereachedatniki@mycase.com.